Reading Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs in the airplane this morning between Seattle and Atlanta, it occurs to me that reading books—at least nonfiction books—has become a poorer experience since the advent of the Internet. Part of the power of Rheingold’s writing is its allusive nature: he collects dozens of points of reference and authorities across as many fields of study and assembles them into a pattern. But you’re always aware that there are depths beneath each name that illustrate different aspects of the story, such as wearable computing/cyborg Steve Mann’s collision with the new blunt instrument of airport security, who forcibly unwired him.
Reading such a work on an airplane, without an always-on Internet connection, is a poorer experience because it deprives the reader of the opportunity to check context, collect evidence that informs or opposes Rheingold’s point, and follow lines of inquiry that may digress from the path of the narrative. It also deprives one of access to Rheingold’s Smart Mobs blog, in which he continues collecting, pointing to, and commenting on evidence of the emerging collective, mobile intelligence evolving around us.
At least the laptop provides some measure of disconnected “backup brain”—I don’t know that I would have remembered that the Smart Mobs blog had its own domain rather than a home on Blogspot without NetNewsWire, my RSS aggregator of choice, which gave me the relevant URL when I command-clicked the Smart Mobs blog listing in my subscriptions list. NNW also aggregated my unread headlines as I was finishing my packing this morning, providing me with some supplemental reading material.
Maybe aggregators like NetNewsWire provide the best option for disconnected experiences and travel access to information. They’re certainly a better alternative than the previous iteration of the technology. When I was a software consultant and traveled occasionally, I relied on Lotus Notes and an extensive array of company databases that could be replicated for offline reference. Really, though, I only ever needed a small fraction of the material contained in any of those databases. Providing RSS feeds from blogs, where I can choose my subscription list based on individual providing the information, allows me to make choices based on voice and reduces some measure of information overload.
It’s not perfect, by itself. But next generation tools like Blogrolling.com (for exploring what the people to whom you subscribe are reading), Technorati (for finding out what people are saying about you), and even Weblogs.com (for sheer serendipity—I’ve had some really great random experiences by clicking on the links to blogs I knew nothing about, save that they had posted in the last three hours) help to expand the scope of my interest beyond the “echo cavern” of talking to myself by providing primitive reputation systems and filtering.
What’s the next step? How about a blog recommendation engine for people who don’t themselves blog, maybe based on search patterns or even Amazon purchase history? Google, in addition to recommending Usenet groups or DMoz directories, could recommend blogs that follow your interests, as expressed by your search terms. (This is the real power in Andrew Orlowski’s suggestion in the Register that blogs should have their own Google tab—not getting them out of people’s search results but making it possible to expand the UI into more expressive recommendations.
Of course, on the airplane I can’t do anything about this, for now.